Why You Feel The Way You Do
Q. How does abuse affect a child’s personality?
A. Just as malnutrition can cause life-long damage to a child’s developing body, repeated trauma can affect a child’s developing personality. Children count on home and parents for safety and survival. If home is unsafe, the child’s whole world is unsafe. That reality becomes part of the child’s outlook: the world is a treacherous place. No one will protect you and no one can be trusted.
Furthermore, if the abuser is a parent or other authority figure, the child must stay attached to the source of his or her terror. Children know they are dependent on adults, and they instinctively need to attach to someone. To preserve faith in his or her abuser, the child has to distort reality. The truth that there is something terribly wrong with the child’s home must be rejected. Thus, a child may ‘forget’ the abuse or deny that it was wrong. A child may even ‘dissociate’ from her or his body during abusive episodes. When those avoidance tactics fail and the ugly reality sinks in, the child needs to find an explanation. The child is likely to seize on the idea that that the root of all evil is her or his innate baddness: ‘My parents are OK, it’s me that’s bad.” In short, distorted thinking is a common reaction to child abuse.
Q. I was abused, but I can’t help thinking it was all my fault. Is that unusual?
A. Many abuse survivors blame themselves. This is especially true when the abuser is a parent or a close relative. No child wants to believe his or her parent is bad. Many abusers are skilled at convincing a child that the abuse is due to the child’s own misbehavior or is the results of the child’s own ‘bad’ sexual curiosity. Further, abuse often makes its victims feel worthless and, thus, deserving of the pain they feel. This self-blame is often carried into adulthood and can become a pattern in the abuse survivor’s relations with others.
An important step in healing from abuse is to put the blame where it belongs-on the abuser. No child deserves to be abused, period. Children do not cause adults to abuse them. If you were abused, it was not your fault. If you were abused and you hurt inside, it is because someone harmed you, not because you were bad.
Q. What is ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ and what does it have to do with child abuse?
A. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric diagnosis used to describe a group of symptoms common in people who have suffered extremely stressful experiences, such as physical or sexual abuse. Common symptoms include a belief that danger is around every corner, a numbing of emotions, memory gaps, a lack of trust, flashbacks (in which the trauma is relived), and panic attacks (in which the survivor is engulfed by a sense of terror). Irrational guilt, depression, a sense of worthlessness, and thoughts of suicide may also be associated with PTSD. Alcohol and drugs are often used to numb these feelings. In extreme cases, a survivor may develop ‘multiple personalities.’
Not all abuse survivors have PTSD symptoms. Many people have some symptoms, but not all of them and the severity varies with the individual. Each survivor responds to trauma in his or her own unique way.
Q. As a man who was abused, I feel left out. Why is it assumed that only girls get molested?
A. Women have led the way in breaking the secrecy around child abuse, but boys are also abused and molested, both by women and men. it is sometimes harder for a male survivor to break his silence, especially about sexual abuse, for fear that he will not be understood, believes or respected. Men–often the forgotten survivors–have the same rights as women to heal and to receive justice.
Q. When I was 13, I had a sexual relationship with an adult uncle. He tells me that I wasn’t abused because I consented, but all I feel now is shame and anger. Can you help me sort out these feelings?
A. Overpowering physical force is seldom needed to molest a child. In the vast majority of cases, the child is manipulated into being a ‘willing participant.’ A child, especially a child whose need for love is unmet by his or her family, is an east target. The vulnerability is even greater if the adult is in an authority position, such as a family member, clergy, a teacher or a group leader.
Law enforcement experts refer to the seduction of children as ‘grooming.’ It usually starts with the adult developing an intense friendship with the child, filling a critical need in the child’s life. Gradually, sex is introduced as a condition of continuing the ‘friendship’ and is often presented as a test of the child’s loyalty to the adult (If you are really my friend, you will do this with me.). A skillful predator of children can even make his or her victims believe they are the pursuers! An adult has no business having sexual contact with a child, period.